Aung San Suu Kyi, the Generals, and How Myanmar’s Democracy Hopes Collapsed

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Aung San Suu Kyi, the Generals, and How Myanmar’s Democracy Hopes Collapsed

From the start of Aung San Suu Kyi’s public life, Myanmar’s generals have maneuvered to get her out of their way.

They kept her under house arrest for half of the past three decades for trying to turn Myanmar into a democracy. When they agreed to partly loosen their grip after 50 years of military rule, they coded a special constitutional provision to ensure that even if Ms. Suu Kyi won popular elections, she could never be president.

This week, the famous activist-turned-political leader was locked up again, in her house in the nation’s capital. The army chief, now Myanmar’s absolute ruler after deposing her government, hasn’t said when or if Ms. Suu Kyi will be set free.

Her detention followed an election in November that ended in a landslide for her party, National League for Democracy. The result shocked her opponents, a party backed by the military. Internal polls had projected a better performance, a party official said. The military chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, had also been led to believe that the party would fare better than it eventually did, an Asian official said.

Election officials counted ballots in Yangon, Myanmar, in November. Ms. Suu Kyi’s NLD party won by a large margin.

Photo: lynn bo bo/Shutterstock/european pressphoto agency

When the generals turned toward democratization a decade ago, their expectation was that they could control how it went, and Ms. Suu Kyi taking over wasn’t part of the plan, said analysts who study the military. “They tolerated it, but when they got trounced again, it was a clear signal the NLD was staying in power,” according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

In the last five years, Ms. Suu Kyi’s party had frequently worried a takeover was coming. She and Gen Hlaing shared power but they rarely met, communicating sometimes through aides, the person with knowledge of the situation said. “They didn’t trust each other. They both felt that they were born to lead,” the person said.

The destinies of “The Lady,” as she is sometimes called by supporters, and the generals, have long been intertwined with each other and with their nation. Myanmar’s celebrated democratic opening over the past decade was premised on their ability to navigate a power-sharing arrangement in which Ms. Suu Kyi, the de facto civilian leader, steered a government in which the military controlled key pieces.

The compact fell apart.

This week’s events, which some supporters fear could be the end of Ms. Suu Kyi’s, and Myanmar’s, shot at democratic change, echo a tumultuous episode from her earliest years in public life. In 1990, Ms. Suu Kyi’s then-newly-formed party had, similarly, won big in an election, only to have the military reject it and continue their reign for two more decades. Back then, the generals placed her under house arrest before the vote—her first of several spells in isolation—while this time around, they waited until after the results.

Aung San Suu Kyi is at bottom center in this 1947 family portrait.

Photo: KYODO NEWS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ms. Suu Kyi’s link to the armed forces goes back a long way. Her father, Gen. Aung San, was one of the lead architects of the independence army formed in 1941 to oust British colonists. Ms. Suu Kyi, born in 1945, has expressed fondness for soldiers, saying she was cared for by them as a child.

After the country, then called Burma, won freedom in 1948, the military’s image of itself transformed as it turned to face communist and ethnic minority rebels. Historians and political analysts say Burmese generals share a deep belief that they have an almost divine obligation to protect Myanmar from civil wars and preserve what they see as the Buddhist nation’s racial and religious integrity. In 1962, they staged a coup that ushered in half a century of military rule.

“This is an institution where, from the time you sign up, you are indoctrinated to believe the army is at the center of society, and it’s the only thing standing in the way of national disintegration,” said Aaron Connelly, a Singapore-based researcher with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.

Outside its ranks, many see the army differently. The country is home to one of the world’s longest civil wars, waged between the military and about 20 nonstate armed groups mostly representing ethnic minorities fighting for greater autonomy. For decades, the military has been accused of terrorizing rebels and civilians in its many conflict zones.

While the military built a pervasive presence in Myanmar’s political and economic life, Ms. Suu Kyi was living overseas, where she married a British man with whom she had two sons. She had traveled back to Myanmar to care for her ailing mother in 1988 when she found her country in the throes of political upheaval. A new political force had emerged to challenge the military regime, and violent crackdowns elicited more sympathy for the pro-democracy camp.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a rally in Yangon in August, 1988.

Photo: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/Getty Images

Ms. Suu Kyi, a poised and eloquent figure whose features resembled those of her father, a national hero, joined them. Her speech at Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda in August that year made her the face of the movement.

In the speech, she invoked her father, his vision for a democratic future and her affection for the fighting force he built. Her political trajectory can be understood as a deeply personal struggle to restore her father’s legacy.

“I feel strong attachment for the armed forces,” Ms. Suu Kyi, then 43, said in the speech. “I would therefore not wish to see any splits and struggles between the army which my father built up and the people who love my father so much.”

The following month, she helped found the National League for Democracy.

In July 1989, Ms. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for the first time for allegedly violating a national security law. She remained in detention in her villa in Yangon until 1995. She was detained under house arrest a second time in 2000 and held until her release 18 months later. Hundreds of supporters crowded around the gates of her Yangon home to celebrate her freedom, but it didn’t last long.

In May 2003, the pro-democracy fighter was traveling to the central Myanmar town of Depayin when her convoy was attacked by a violent mob. At least four bodyguards were killed in the attack, according to Human Rights Watch. The military detained her and didn’t let her leave her home for seven years.

Her army captors continued their reign despite crippling sanctions imposed by the West citing the military junta’s human-rights violations. Military-owned conglomerates have interests in areas from construction and gem extraction to manufacturing, tourism and banking.

Decades of isolation left the nation in ruins and the military sought a return to the global fold to ease sanctions and counterbalance the country’s reliance on China. The generals engineered a hybrid political system that preserved their power.

A new constitution in 2008 gave the army control of three government ministries and a quarter of parliamentary seats—enough to veto any changes to the charter itself. This was far from ideal for Ms. Suu Kyi, but she took the democratic opening, winning the country’s first free and fair vote in decades in 2015.

Supporters of the National League for Democracy celebrated Myanmar’s first free national election in decades in Yangon in November 2015.

Photo: soe zeya tun/Reuters

Her party created a post for her, state counselor, that gave her de facto government control despite the constitutional clause that effectively barred her from becoming president.

In power, Ms. Suu Kyi wasn’t the liberal reformist many expected her to be. Her leadership style has been described by those who know her as top-down. Activists hoped her government would overturn colonial-era laws that could be easily abused. Instead, the laws were used to prosecute journalists and others.

Businesses complained of slow decision-making. Civil wars grew worse. A violent Buddhist nationalism was rising.

Rohingya refugees driven out of Myanmar crossed into Bangladesh in October 2017.

Photo: FRED DUFOUR/agence france-presse/Getty Images

In 2017, the military launched a deadly assault on the Rohingya Muslim community, driving more than 740,000 people to neighboring Bangladesh. Soldiers went on shooting rampages, burned entire villages and raped women, according to refugees and human-rights groups. The generals’ operation shocked the world, as did Ms. Suu Kyi’s muted response.

The icon who had been locked up by the military for years was now seen abroad as a defender of their violence, refusing to condemn the atrocities and instead criticizing advocacy groups and her international critics of exaggeration and interference. Her advisers said in interviews that she was in a delicate position and that one misstep could give the military the chance to retake power.

Diplomats who have discussed the issue with her say Ms. Suu Kyi believes that the allegations of military violence were exaggerated and that the spread of Islam threatened Buddhism.

Myanmar’s military declared it was taking over the country for a year as it detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her party. Here’s how the coup played out on the ground, and what it means for the nation’s democratic transition. Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/Shutterstock

If Ms. Suu Kyi’s image abroad was tarnished, at home her popularity surged. Supporters from the country’s majority Buddhist population saw her as the victim of biased Western criticism. Her 2019 appearance at the International Court of Justice to defend Myanmar against genocide allegations was broadcast on big outdoor screens in Yangon.

When Ms. Suu Kyi’s NLD won by a large margin in November elections, the military claimed fraud. Election officers said the vote was fair and Ms. Suu Kyi carried on business as usual.

It turned out to be anything but.

On Monday, hours before Ms. Suu Kyi was to head to parliament to kick off her party’s second term, soldiers raided her house. Members of her party, activists and journalists say they fear they will be arrested, and many are bracing for what they expect will be a long period of uncertainty and turmoil.

Yangon residents protested on Thursday against the military coup by banging on pots in the streets.

Photo: str/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Write to Niharika Mandhana at niharika.mandhana@wsj.com and Feliz Solomon at feliz.solomon@wsj.com

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